Book the Shock Doc Show

Monday, November 19, 2007

Fool the Guesser

“Step right up and win a prize”, shouts a carnival worker. “Fool the guesser! If I can’t guess your weight within 2 pounds, your age within two years or the month of your birth within 2 months, you win a prize!”

Intrigued, you watch as the first person steps up and hands over a dollar. The operator looks them up and down, checks behind their ears and makes them lift up each foot to show the bottom of their shoe. Everyone is giggling at the silliness of it all. As if he was doing a final mental calculation and factoring the size of the man’s shoe into the equation he shouts out, “You sir, weigh no more that 176 pounds! Step on the scale and see if you win a prize”.

The scale’s pointer tips right, then left, then right again. Swinging like a pendulum of truth, slowly settling on 176. “You look disappointed sir, but the bigger prize is that you have clearly lost some weight and are a fine specimen of good health. You!—young lady!” He points at a woman who was just laughing at the contortions the Guesser had the prior player do in order to guess his weight. “Care for me to guess the month of your birth? Come on, step right up, you just might win a prize. The odds are in your favor. Anything on this bottom shelf for a quarter and anything from the top shelf for a dollar. You might win big!” She sees the flash—a TV, a watch, some large stuffed animals.

Reluctantly, the women hands over a dollar. “Hmmmm. Let’s see. You have beautiful brown eyes. I can tell you have been unlucky in love (no ring on her finger) but that is changing (isn’t it always)….I’m going to write this down.” The carny writes something on a pad of paper and asks, “So, madam, the month of your birth?” “February”, she announces. She looks down and sees “Jan” written down. Just as she looks back up, thinking she’d won, the carny cuts her off with “Surprised I was able to guess it within two months aren’t you?”. He gestures to the sign that clearly says, “Guess the month of your birth within 2 months”.

The worker shouts out again, “Step right up and win a prize! Fool the guesser. If I can’t guess your weight within 2 pounds, your age within two years or the month of your birth within 2 months, you win a prize!” Knowing that many people have difficulty placing your age and you have been called anything from 18 to 35, you finally step up. “What’s my age? You ask” He extends his hand and you pony up the dollar. He writes a number on a pad and you tell him you are 23, he immediately turns over the pad showing “23”. He smiles as you—knowing you were skeptical and knowing you were hoping to put him in his place. He bested you. You now realize he spotted you watching the other two players and all he had to do was raise your curiosity just enough to make you think you just might be able to take him down a notch. But you didn’t, did you? You are out one dollar.


There are several key points of interest in this scene. The methods used, the techniques used to make the game profitable and finally, a 3rd point of interest is that (unlike most magic) this is a very different, very believable mentalism routine. Most mentalism routines are very powerful because of their seriousness. So are séances. So is the Girl to Gorrilla--the subject of my last article. Let’s take a look at a piece of mentalism that works really well because it isn’t serious at all.

The worker is not claiming any “special powers”. He is not looking deeply into your eyes. He is simply saying “I am a great guesser—see if you can fool me.” This is an interesting tactic for mentalism to take. But it is a path down which performers rarely travel even though it is successful. So, point one is: entertainment first, methodology second. The very same piece, using the very same methods can look very different. When choosing and creating a routine ask yourself, “Which is right for which audience and which setting?”.

Let’s go back and speak to the first two points. Novices will read this article and only look to find only the methods. They may miss the major points. But to feed their interests….In the example given above, there were four possible methods used. A gaffed scale, the use of the “J-line” technique and a gimmick all mentalists have come to know and love.

The fourth (most important) technique used was that the workers did get really good at sizing people up and, if they lost, the slum won was (usually) less than the cost to play. Hence, in its ultimate distillation “Fool the Guesser” was really selling slum by using a little entertainment. For a quarter, you could pick anything from the bottom shelf (usually worth less that a nickel), for a dollar you could choose any top shelf item (also worth less than a dollar). Then, there was unobtainable flash…..

It turns out, that with practice, odds were in the favor of the guesser to begin with. Guessing people’s ages and weights within a few pounds on either side, just isn’t that hard. Now guessing people’s birth month—that seems random. With a straight spread on either side, the guesser already gets 5/6 odds. Well, if they are wearing a birthstone (as people often did in the past), you are in.

Another technique that was employed was regarding the birthmonth technique was the use of the “J-line”. There is a way of drawing Jan, Jun and Jul so they all look the same. This covers every possibility except October (giving you 11/12 odds.) I have seen only two references to this technique in print and only one example of the scrawl. (Figure it out for yourself).

The most powerful method is using a gimmick known to everyone interested in mentalism. With this gimmick, you could write a prediction down on a pad and then, after learning the answer, turn the pad over to show a match. This gimmick makes guessing weight and ages easy. A birthmonth might be challenging for a novice. I will leave you to open up a book and do some research on your own.

The most important point of a successful “Fool the Guesser” is something I admittedly know the least about since I have not worked it. Also no reference book I have ever seen has included the “real work” on it. It is also the hardest to learn. The most important and hardest point to master is knowing how to build and turn a tip—getting people to gather around and finally, step up and take a shot. You can have all your slights perfectly mastered, but if you can’t get people to bite, you are going to starve. This is what carny workers had down to a science and what is missing so often in great magic—generating interest. As a carnival worker, if you can’t generate interest, you can’t put food on the table. In most magic hobbyists’ world, the importance of generating interest is overlooked. If their friends don’t care to see the trick—no big deal, just change the conversation. This is another reason why there is so much bad magic out there.

I have been told by personal communication, that since “Fool the Guesser” is straight selling it doesn’t matter who wins or loses. If it is a woman, the guesser often guesses way low on her weight or age. So, she wins a prize. She is happy, she looks good to her friends and everyone thinks carnivals are just plain good fun. If it is a man only the other hand, take him down if you want. Sometimes a guesser might have a string of wins. This would attract interest in that a crowd might wonder “How does he do it?”. Sometimes, the guesser would overtly have a string of losses—thereby lining up a bunch of people interested in making an easy win and setting them up for losing.

While the question posed to you in the second (last) installment of “The Blowoff” was, “how to you generate believability in your magic?”. The question in this month’s installment is the same as the first month’s: How do you generate interest in your magic.

One more thing: Now, that isn’t to say that people aren’t going to get taken for a ride with “Fool the Guesser”—sometimes they are. And, in that sense perhaps “Fool the Guesser” crosses a moral line. Bilking people out of one dollar is still stealing. But not everyone loses and even the loser is still getting something for his money—entertainment. On the other hand mentalists who claim real psychic powers can take advantage of people for hundreds of thousands of dollars. Not to mention the potential psychological damage that may be incurred by the layperson believing they were talking to their dead identical twin. There is no entertainment to be had except by the psychic who is laughing all the way to the bank.